Kettles are both the most and least important part of the home or office tool set. They are the least important in that all they do is heat water. They are the most important in that they boil water. If you want to enjoy black tea, you simply must have a way to get the water temperature up to bubbling and steaming quickly.

Hot water from the faucet fails this basic requirement. Most coffee makers are limited to 180˚ Fahrenheit versus the boiling point of 212. Some drip machines operate between 195 and 205˚. Microwave ovens don’t boil water but superheat it. They do weird physics things to water and the mug or polystyrene throwaway it’s in. They are in essence wi-fi signal routers that broadcast at 2.4 Ghz. The waves bounce around till they hit a molecule that they “excite.” Excited molecules can create a frenzy, so think of “boiling” water in a microwave as molecular mob violence. Think of it, but don’t encourage it.

The main distinctions among kettles are stove top, electric, and electric with temperature control. Any of these may come in plastic or metal and they vary in size. The electric kettles are cordless or plug-in. Some are plain, simple and functional and others are designer creations with modernist flair, sweeping curves and aesthetic add-ons. You can spend $150 for a designer name, bird whistle tea kettle with a blue handle or $20 for a brand name, whistling kettle with a colored handle. Go sleek or antique. There’s a wealth of choices.

Here’s a checklist of what to look for in terms of the kettle doing its job 

Stove top versus electric: There is no reason to use a kettle that you heat on the electric hot plate or gas on your kitchen cooker. Go electric. The only pros of the old fashioned kettle is that it is cheap, doesn’t tie up yet another kitchen outlet and may come in nostalgia designs that recall the copper vessels whisting away on the hob.   

Safety: A major criterion in choosing a kettle is not just is it safe for you but also for children, whether your own or visitors. Injuries from kettle accidents are rare but can be very severe. Keep in mind that you are not “heating” water the way you heat a bath but concentrating it in a small volume at the very highest temperature. Think of it as a bomb not a basin.

Look for the UL safety rating label. This will show you that the model has been rigorously tested, including for not tipping over, shielded heating element and cord protection and stability.

Make sure the lid locks tight. Check the handle is rubberized and non-slip and that the on-off switch has a power light indicator. Choose a kettle with a large lid, so that it is easy to fill and clean inside.  

Pouring: It may seem unlikely, but many kettles don’t pour the water well. You should be able to hold it and aim the water without wobble or awkwardness. Cordless kettles rest on a base that contains the heating element, so that when you lift them off to pour the water, they are fully free of impediment.

Construction: The best kettles have very strong seams connecting the components. The intense heat they are subject to can result in leaks. Low price steel ones rust with surprising frequency. Plastic ones obviously offer advantages here but they are best avoided since there is still so much uncertainty about the risks of both the chemical composition of the materials, their interaction with the water and their affecting the taste of the water.

Programming: If you drink whole leaf teas that include green and oolong as well as black, it’s well worth buying a kettle that provides some temperature settings. Most offer five or so, ranging from 170-212.˚ The device should have an automatic cut off feature, so it doesn’t boil dry.

There’s no single “best” type of kettle, but it is worth putting a little time and thought into your choice. Consumer reviews of the top buys show no pattern or price bias. Of the 10-20 highlighted in the many lists, the cost ranges from $20-60, with most towards the low end.

Safety is the core issue

UK figures on household accidents rate hot water for coffee and tea as one of the largest causes of serious burns. The figures are high: in a population that is around 20% that of the US, there are over 100,000 serious injuries requiring hospitalization and skin grafts plus over 300,000 needing treatment.

Almost half the injuries are to children under five. These tend to be serious because they mostly affect the upper body, including face and eyes, since the little one pulls or tips the kettle or pan from above head height.

Here’s the scary figure: a child exposed to hot water at just 140˚ for 6 seconds will need a skin graft. That is cooler than the 160˚ average for hot coffee and way below the 212˚ of a steaming kettle. Extrapolate the impact of that for 20 seconds.

As technology and materials improve, the traditional kettle is becoming a component in an integrated heater/brewer/server maker that comes ever closer to fully automating the tea making process, Some of these are superb with simple controls to select the temperature/time combination for individual types of type and mechanisms to best handle how and when the leaf is permitted to interact with the water.

These are “modern” but the venture to enable you to get your morning cup of tea that brings you into the world of the living out of semi-narcoleptic somnambulism dates back a century. For once in the history of tea it did not emerge from the mists of Chinese antiquity but British ingenuity and tinkering. Here is the patented Teasmaid device, from 1904.

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The alarm clock releases a plate that strikes a match which lights the spirit stove which heats the kettle which tilts and pours the tea. Today of course it would be an IP-addressable Internet of Things Made in China wi-fi Android Web-accessible app. But still a kettle that heats water.